Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cromwell Book and Dissertation Prizes

[We've previously noted the winners of this year's Cromwell Book and Dissertation Prizes, which are made and funded by the Cromwell Foundation with the advice of a committee of the American Society for Legal History. At the ASLH's annual meeting, the chair of the ASLH Advisory Committee on the Cromwell Prizes, Richard Ross, thanked the Foundation "for its great generosity in creating and funding these awards" and read the following citations.]

For the book prize, the committee unanimously recommended Rebecca M. McLennan, The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941 (Cambridge University Press, 2008). McLennan sheds new light on the history of prisons and punishments from the early republic through the Progressive era by focusing on convict labor. She brings into sharp focus the complex and changing relationship between punishment, work, politics, and economics. The tensions between the conflicting goals of discipline, penitence, and profit provoked clashes between prison administrators, penal reformers, and inmates. McLennan successfully strikes a balance many historians seek but few achieve between granting agency to those who lack access to conventional forms of power and identifying the very real limits of that agency. Even after Progressive era reforms abolished prisoners’ involuntary servitude and replaced it with an incentivized system of behavioral rewards and punishments, the penal system still sought to profit from the unfree while preparing them for freedom. McLennan’s “crisis of imprisonment” persists.

For the dissertation/article prize, the committee unanimously recommended Jed Shugerman, “The People's Courts: The Rise of Judicial Elections and Judicial Power in America” (PhD thesis, Yale University, 2008). Shugerman’s dissertation breathes new life into a neglected topic: judicial elections. Extraordinarily well researched, the dissertation explores why this uniquely American institution both shaped and reflected myriad changes in 19th century political, economic, and legal life. Shugerman’s historical periodization supports the new and persuasive claim that electing state judges emerged as a check on executives and legislatures abusing discretion, especially during the era of Jacksonian Democracy. Judicial elections thus strengthened judicial review and engendered a sharp increase in the number of statutes invalidated on constitutional grounds.

Shugerman ascribes the dynamics of change more to pro-and-antislavery politics and contests over strict liability than to the self-centered role of elite lawyers. Ultimately, his impressive work invites new research on the relationship among modes of judicial selection, constitutional checks-and balances, and substantive legal rules.

[The Harvard Law School’s release on Shugerman’s prize is here.]

Hat tip: H-Law